Can England reign down in Africa?

by Neil Sherwin

England booked their place at next summer’s World Cup finals with a stunning 5-1 win over Croatia this week, but have they got what it takes to go all the way and lift the trophy for the first time since 1966? Neil Sherwin certainly thinks so.

ENGLAND V ANDORRA

For so long the English national team has failed to deliver. Regarded by many as a bunch of badly managed egos who couldn’t play together in the same side, they have responded under the guidance of Fabio Capello to impressively qualify for the World Cup in South Africa with a 100% record, albeit with two group games still to play. As an added bonus, they should now be seeded when the draw for the group stages takes place in December.

In the eight group games played so far they have scored a massive 31 goals and conceded just five. It could be argued that the group isn’t the strongest, however it was against Croatia two years ago that England suffered an embarrasing defeat at Wembley to confirm their failure to qualify for the 2006 European Championships, while the Ukraine and Belarus are often good for an upset.

HOLLAND V ENGLAND, INTERNATIONAL FRIENDLY

Capello commands respect, and when he speaks people listen to and believe him. “The expectation is really hard,” he said after the win over the Croats. “We have to play to win because we are England. We are one of the best teams in the world. We can play against all the best teams.”

He doesn’t come with the off field circus that surrounded Sven Goran Eriksson, and is much respected than his predecessor Steve McClaren could ever hope to be. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine an incident such as the infamous ‘Dentist’s Chair’ of Euro ’96 happening while he is at the helm.

The players also seemed to have discovered a new found sense of reality and professionalism. Interviews with both Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard this week see them in buoyant mood about the campaign, but they are aware that there is still a lot of football to be played between now and July.

“We’ve got a long way to go to win the whole thing, obviously, but we’ve qualified and we’re there,” said Lampard. “It’s nice to get excited at the moment and we will celebrate this, I’m sure.”

Captain John Terry echoed his clubmate’s sentiments. “When we play like that, pressing opponents and working the ball, we’re a difficult opposition for any side,” he said. “But don’t forget, it’s taken a year or so for us to get this good and we’ve still got a way to go to get to where we ultimately want to be. But we’re on the right track.”

Indeed they are on the right track. Failure to qualify for the last European Championships seems to have given the players a much needed wake up call, with Lampard and Gerrard finally looking like they can play well together in the same team.

The squad does come with its weaknesses however. The goalkeeping situation isn’t the best, with an aging David James competing with a very average Ben Foster and Robert Green for the number one shirt. None of them inspire the greatest of confidence and would most certainly be seen as targets for opposition sides to exploit.

If you were being very critical then the defensive abilities of full backs Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole could also be called into question, though the former has had a superb start to the season at Liverpool, while the latter has been at his consistent best.

The cliched ‘problem left side’ is still there due in large part to the absence of both Joe Cole and Stewart Downing to injury, however both will be pressing for a place in the squad come selection time. Gerrard is currently filling the void and has done so very well, with Capello giving him a licence to get forward and support Wayne Rooney and Emile Heskey as much as possible in recent games.

If England are to go far in South Africa then they need Rooney to stay fit. The Manchester United man has really stepped up to the plate under Capello and has become something of a talisman, outshining some of his more seniord teammates. His partnership with Emile Heskey doesn’t look incredibly potent on paper but it has been incredibly effective, and with the in-form Jermaine Defoe waiting in the wings, England possess a forward line with great flexibility.

England would have to be considered as one of the favourites for the World Cup, and rightly so. They have a team full of experienced winners and finally have a manager in place who knows how to get the best from them.

Forty four years is a long time for such a big football nation to have gone without a trophy, and the 2010 World Cup represents a fantastic opportunity to end the drought.

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